E’s Family Tree

Dear P,

I came home today, exhausted after the day’s work, and decided to listen to RadioLab while I snacked on a grapefruit. This turned out to be the best decision I’ve made this long day, as I stumbled across an 80th-birthday-celebration interview with Oliver Sacks. P, as you know, Oliver Sacks is my favorite writer. Whenever I listen to interviews with him I always end up getting emotional. This interview was no exception.

To get into why I started tearing up today we have to go back to this time last night. I was sitting in the same spot I am now frantically googling ways I could get into Austin Kleon’s SXSW speech that was today at 2:00. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get in. My irrational optimism led me to believe his speaking presentation would be open to the public, and especially the bright young minds at UT Austin. Turns out badges are $1000+ and I did not plan enough to volunteer. At about 8:00 AM this morning I emailed Austin Kleon asking him if I could come to his speaking presentation (again with the irrational optimism).

The reason I wanted to go to Austin Kleon’s event so very badly is because he has a lot of interesting ideas. He has a new book out called Show Your Work. I recommend it. But the idea most central to my Oliver Sacks story is under a subtitle in his first book: “Climb your own family tree”. I consider Oliver Sacks to be my creative father. That statement sounds egotistical and ridiculous on many levels, but I don’t care. When I first started reading Oliver Sacks’ books at age thirteen my mind was opened. He is the reason for both my college majors, Neurobiology and Rhetoric and Writing, and is the first person I was aware of who successfully combined the two.

Austin Kleon encourages each reader to “Climb your own family tree” because “Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff.” Dr. Sacks has the amazing ability of making his work relatable. This is his great power. His patients have otherworldly neurological disabilities that make it hard for us to imagine what reality seems like to them. Oliver Sacks takes us into his patient’s brain, allowing us to empathize with them. However, Dr. Sacks was not always in a position where he could use this super-power. In the interview I just listened to he talked about how he was a researcher in the beginning of his career. He was a terrible researcher. He lost his notebook and then the myelin he had been collecting from earthworms for nearly a year. The faculty of his research office decided he should be moved to a nursing home with many patients that were victims of the 1920’s encephalitis lethargica disease. These patients were doomed to remain speechless and motionless for eternity; that is, until they were administered L-dopa under the watchful eye of Dr. Sacks. The rest is history, beautifully documented by Sacks himself.

This story made me tear up because I, too, tried research and I, too, lost my specimens. I felt very much less alone. I felt even less alone when Sacks went on to describe one of his heroes: Dr. A. R. Luria. Dr. Luria was the only modern physician Dr. Sacks was aware of that wrote his case histories with the style that Dr. Sacks wanted to write with. Not just the facts, but all the expressive details that portrayed how the patient was feeling: “..a case history that did not shy away from the human aspects and the pathos and drama”, as Sacks described one of Luria’s works.

You know what this means, P. If Oliver Sacks is my creative father, A. R. Luria is my creative grandfather. Sacks felt the same way about Luria as I feel about Sacks: a mixture of overpowering envy and awe.

My plan now is to research Luria and read his best work. Then I will find out who he looked up to, and go further and further up my family tree. After all, we are all related somehow*.

Your soul-sister,

E

*This means no disrespect to my biological family that I was very lucky to be born into.

Advertisements

Living Uncomfortably and Trying to Feel Comfortable About It

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) in The Descent of Man

image

 

(Pic of us by our friend N. Check out more of his stuff here.)

Dear P,

I am currently reading a book about Abraham Lincoln. It is called Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and it is about how Abraham Lincoln mustered together all of his political rivals into a team. The reason everyone respects Abe so much today is because in the midst of the greatest conflict our country has ever faced he “refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights” (Goodwin). He listened to everyone, even people he didn’t like when they were passionately disagreeing with him.

This is unlike the elderly man I just observed in Starbucks for an hour. He kept talking to the young guy beside him. At first, I thought they were working together, but it quickly became apparent that they had never met before. The old man kept telling his young friend stories of his own brilliance. He told him how he had taken apart his father’s lawn mower when he was six and put it back together again. He talked about how he commented on his Facebook friend’s pictures if he thought they were inappropriate. He was insufferable and didn’t stop even when the (very patient) younger man told him that he had a test the next day. This man was so self-assured that he had lost his ability to listen to things he did not want to hear, or even consider there were things he did not know.

Abraham Lincoln was not so self-assured. He was wracked with uncertainty, grief, even, some historians argue, depression. This suffering was displayed masterfully in the movie “Lincoln”, which I highly recommend. Lincoln is not the only example of a great thinker who was forced to live closely with the uncertainty of the future. Darwin doubted his own work so much it took him twenty years, and the presence of a usurper to his theory, before he published. If you ever choose to read On the Origin of the Species, it is better to only read the first four chapters. After that, Darwin waffles and defends himself in example after example. He was not certain anyone would accept his theory.

No one can be certain of anything. Last week, I was reading the book The Science Writers’ Handbook. I was reading about how to pitch a story and I felt overwhelmed with the weight of uncertainty. What if my pitches didn’t work, not just in this field, but in every aspect of my life? What if I proved universally unmarketable? I started crying and called my mom. My mom is a wise woman, but she had nothing comforting to say. There is nothing to say. Life is uncertain.

It is intensely uncomfortable to live with this knowledge. It is nearly as uncomfortable as living with the only certainty-that all my friends, family, and eventually you, P, and I will die. However, it is only but constantly reminding myself of this uncertainty (and the certainty) that can internalize that I am not undefeatable, that it is important that I listen to others, that I must strive to be better every day. Because of the uncertainty, I appreciate every blessing I am given. In the age of positive thinking, it is important to consider this uncomfortable truth. The uncertainty of life helps me to live better, even if it is sometimes overwhelming.

Love,

E

A Man Stuck: Henry Molaison

Dear P,

Happy first week of school! I wanted to welcome in your new semester by sharing some cool science news.

Something exciting happened in the world of neuroscience last week. Scientists at the University of California in San Diego made a 3-D model of the brain of H. M., the late Henry Gustav Molaison.

In the field of brain science, interesting patients often become more famous than their researchers. This was the case with Phineas Gage, the man who had a railroad spike jammed up his head. Gage’s personality changed when his frontal lobes were severely damaged by the trauma. Oliver Sacks, one of my personal heroes, took advantage of how interesting it is to study brain issues through afflicted patients in his many books. My favorite of his stories, “An Anthropologist on Mars”, shows Temple Grandin, an doctor of animal science who now has a few books of her own. It is hard to create human laboratory experiments in neuroscience because no one seems to want to have their brain cut up while they’re still using it. These case studies have therefore been critical to growth in the field, especially before the widespread use of PET scans, MRI machines, CT scans, EEGs, and others that are being invented as I type.

The importance and fame of patient H. M. was no exception. H. M. was 27 in 1953 when he had surgery to remove two finger-sized pieces of brain, including his hippocampus. This procedure was supposed to provide relief from his extreme epilepsy. The surgery fixed his epilepsy and H. M. retained many aspects of his former identity, such as his former long-term memories, his motor skills, his passion for crossword puzzles, and his language and perception skills. Unfortunately, he lost his ability to form new explicit memories, as well as most of the memories from 1-2 years before his surgery. When he worked his crossword puzzles, he could accurately answer questions related to events before 1953, but he had trouble answering questions related to events after his surgery. H. M. is famous for eventually learning to add facts to his old, pre-amnesiac memories. For example, he was able to answer a crossword question about the Salk vaccine, which was invented in 1955, because he could remember when polio was a big deal. He could learn new facts as long as he had old connections he could anchor them to. He was also able to learn new motor and perceptual skills: he was able to learn how to trace an outline between two stars while watching his hand in the mirror (a hard task for almost anyone) (Carey, 2010). He helped scientists realize how many different forms of memory there are.

Scientists learned and continue to learn from H. M. In 1992, his brain was scanned under a MRI machine for the first time, revealing the extent of his 1953 surgery (Carey, 2008). The lesion was symmetrical, but less extensive than the surgeon had intended. Parts of the hippocampus appeared to still be intact, but other areas of the brain were damaged further than anyone had expected.

On December 2, 2008, H. M. died from respiratory failure in his nursing home in Connecticut. Scientists always remarked upon his generosity and patience, especially since he viewed them as strangers (Carey, 2008). His generosity continued even after his death. Last week, UC San Diego unveiled an unprecedented study in which H. M.’s brain was cut into 2,401 slices on a livestream, analyzed, and then re-built using the digital images (Annese et al, 2014).

There’s a very important pathway called the EC that connects the hippocampus to the rest of the brain. While H. M.’s hippocampus underwent much less damage than previously believed, the scientists at UC San Diego realized that his EC had been almost completely decimated (Annese et al, 2014). This explained his memory problems. In addition, there was damage to the amygdala and other cortexes (Annese et al, 2014). These may have been the cause of H. M.’s slightly dampened emotions and his trouble reporting pain, hunger, or thirst. The model also revealed cortical damage that was not related to the surgery. Scientists theorize that it was due to age and hypertension (Annese et al, 2014).

H. M.’s brain is going to continue to benefit the fields of memory, aging, and emotion for years to come. The 3-D model of his brain is the first in human history (Annese et al, 2014). It’s remarkable that H. M. was able to retain much of his former self and even start consolidating new facts. The resilience and complexity of the human brain never ceases to amaze me.

I hope you have a great weekend! Don’t forget how awesome the stuff that we study is! We are are such lucky people.

In the pursuit of wonder,

E

If you want to read more:

Annese, J., Schenker-Ahmed, N., Bartsch, H., Maechler, P., Sheh, C., Thomas, T., Kayano, J., & Ghatan, A. (2014). Postmortem examination of patient h.m.’s brain based on histological sectioning and digital 3d reconstruction. Nature, doi: 10.1038/ncomms4122

Carey, B. (2008). H. m., an unforgettable amnesiac, dies at 82. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/05/us/05hm.html?pagewanted=1

Carey, B. (2010). No memory, but he filled in the blanks. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/science/07memory.html?ref=health&_r=1&

Love in the Brain

Dear E,

Disclaimer: I think the reason I’ve been avoiding blogging lately is because I’ve been wanting to sit down and write a super awesome spectacular long post. But every time the inspiration hits me hard I’m either far far away from a computer or I’m swamped with homework. So for now I’m going to write you more often, but I’m going to keep it short and sweet. Even if it isn’t very inspirational.

Anyway, watch the video above!

Isn’t this such an interesting and cool study? I liked all the different ways people thought of love. I don’t know how accurate it was though. I don’t think you can pinpoint love in only one place or in a couple of pathways. It seems strange that you can measure love. I don’t know how I feel about dissecting love. I know I want to be a neuroscientist and everything, but love just seems like one of those things you could never explain, you know? And if you were able to explain it, would that take away from it at all? If we knew which chemicals caused love and which pathways in the brain were activated during “love” then would it still be as magical? Could we create love?? What if we could make people fall in love with each other? I’m wondering how long it will be before scientists claim they know the exact causes of love and how it works. I’m going to go read more about love in the brain. Even though I should probably be studying for school…#pass/no record!

Love you loads

XOXO

-P

Platypus and Gender

Dear P,

image

I hope you’re having a fantastic week! I have some seriously interesting genetics learnings to share with you. This week we’ve been learning about sex chromosomes and how our high school teachers were omitting some information when they divided the world solidly into Male (XY) and Female (XX) with a capital M and F.

image

First of all, as anyone who has ever read the highly recommended “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides, gender disorders in humans are very possible and confusing for everyone involved. There are many varieties of chromosomal diseases that have varying implications for their victims. Females with Triple X Syndrome (XXX) often never realize they possess an abnormality, but patients with more extreme chromosomal abnormalities, like the 25 women in all of medical literature who have suffered from XXXXX aneuploidy (abnormal number of chromosomes), have similar symptoms to individuals with Trisomy 21 (Down’s) syndrome.

image

The Y chromosome is what determines official gender. If the individual has a Y chromosome, they are officially Male. If they have no Y chromosome, they are officially Female. Like many black and white rules, this definition causes almost as many problems as it solves. See “transsexuals” and any of the individuals with the above chromosomal abnormalities. The way gender ties into the way we see ourselves, and other see us, mean it can be very confusing for everyone. And you know how people hate being confused.

image

In the animal world things get even more interesting. The reason there are a ton of pictures of platypus on this post, besides because they are cute, is because platypus have no less than ten sex chromosomes.So, these mammals- that lay eggs, have bills, and are venomous- just got that much weirder. And cooler. I think I have a new favorite animal.

image

And things get even more bizarre when we move beyond the land of mammals. For most bees species, only the female sex is actually fertilized and have the full set of chromosomes. So the male sex have a haploid set of chromosomes. And the female bee egg cell doesn’t have to be fertilized to give birth to males. So, in bee world, a male bee is just half a female bee.

image

Thinking about all these striations of gender make me consider that humans have it pretty good, equality-wise. I mean, imagine if we were only attracted to a sex that had half the number of genes that we did. I am going to remember that the next time I have to struggle to coax a guy to have a conversation in more than monosyllables.

This weird, wonderful, gray world of gender is the center of much controversy and false stereotyping. I hope, as we move throughout our lives, we can consider people without limiting by the expectations of their gender. People, like platypus, are bizarre and impossible to pin down.

And if you ever feel a little bit claustrophobic from the box people try to fit our sex in to, just remember:

image

Always.

(I saw this ad and was reminded of your quest for the perfect sunglasses. Found them yet?)

I hope you are having a super-spectacular time! Give Steven Pinker a big kiss from me!

Love,

E

Crying from happiness?

image

Dear E,

Today I realized that I have never cried from happiness. You know me, I’m not really much of a crier in the first place. The few occasional times that I do cry it’s usually out of anger or immense pain. So then I got to thinking, why do we even cry? Most people cry when they are sad. But how does sadness make you cry? It’s weird because emotions seem so intangible, but the act of crying is a very physical thing. Sadness is an unquantifiable thing. You don’t say, “My sadness level is at a 9.2,” you just say,” I am very sad.” This also got me thinking about heartbreak. Say someone breaks up with you or someone in your immediate family dies. You feel extremely, extremely sad. You’re heartbroken. But your heart hasn’t actually broken. Why do we feel all of our emotions in our hearts? Why not in our toes? Or our ears? When you become really sad, there is absolutely nothing wrong with your heart. So why do you feel it in your chest? So back to my original point: crying from happiness is even rarer than crying from sadness. I think people cry from happiness when they are overwhelmed by everything around them. It’s all the good and the bad and the happy and the sad. I guess crying is just some sort of survival mechanism. I’m going to go google this shit and ponder the act of crying and heartbreak for a while. If you want to read a really good article about why people cry then check this link out. http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/why-we-cry-the-truth-about-tearing-up

I love you and miss you so much!

-P

Response from E:

Hey! Interesting post and article!

I cried from happiness when I found out I was a Gryffindor on Pottermore. And I frequently cry because life is just so beautiful and overwhelming, like you said. I cry as a reaction to various emotions at least once a week. I actually think this may trace back to the introvert/extrovert difference (for all new readers, P’s MBTI is ENFP and mine is INFJ). Remember how I was telling you that I read in Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet” (which I highly recommend, especially if you identify as an introvert), that introverts usually have more sensitive physiological systems? For example, when the taste of lemon is placed on a subject’s tongue, the subject is likely to secrete more saliva if she is an introvert. I think the same is probably true for tears. So that’s probably why you don’t cry as much as I do. Or, it could be that I am just a giant sissy, which is definitely a possibility.

As for the expression “heartbreak”, sadness is not just psychological. Sadness can bring physical symptoms, hence “heartbreak.” The brain stops releasing the endorphins that decrease pain and ramps up the anterior cingulate cortex, which regulates physical pain distress, according to this article: http://www.science20.com/variety_tap/science_behind_heartbreak_progress

Brains make sure sadness hurts just like they make sure getting burned hurts. That way, we will not repeat the offending action. I couldn’t find info on why you feel sadness in the chest area.

Loads of love! I miss you more!

E

Quest #13: The Ten Books that have Influenced Us the Most

Just warning you… if you read these books you will be forever changed and will be unable to look at the world the same way again. 

E’s Books

1. The Harry Potter Series– I firmly believe that each of us have one part of pop culture we reach for in our greatest need. Our pop culture comfort food, if you will. Harry Potter is mine. I have been listening to the books on tape since I was five years old and nothing calms me down like Jim Dale’s dulcet voice imitating my friends Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest of the gang. 

I took the above picture myself. My love for Harry Potter motivated me to visit London last summer with my dear friend H (http://liveitothefullest.tumblr.com/) to see the actors and JK Rowling at the premiere of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.” It was one of the cooler things I’ve ever done.
2. “An Anthropologist on Mars” by Oliver Sacks– Oliver Sacks is a personal hero of mine. He is a genius in so many ways. He is a great scientist, writes beautiful prose, and is an empathetic, caring man. I love the way he approaches neuroscience. Anyone would be interested in reading his works. 
3. “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson– Talk about a mind-blower! This book really puts things into perspective. It is, actually, a short history of nearly everything, from the formation of the universe to the scientists that made these discoveries. 
4. The “Odyssey” by Homer– I read the Iliad and the Odyssey while I was in Greece the summer before my freshman year. My dad was working in a small fishing village near Delphi, so my family got to tag along. This was a really incubative time for me in a lot of different ways, and somehow Homer worked himself into who I am today. The ultimate quest for the unreachable Ithaca, the faithful Penelope, the dreaded Cyclops and ensnaring Sirens. I love it all. 
5. I feel like I should include the King James Bible. I asked my mom for this version when I heard that Martin Luther King learned his rhetoric from the grand language used in this version of the Bible. Even if you’re not religious, Christianity is such a huge part of our culture and literature. You can recognize stories from the Bible everywhere. Of course, the same is true about Shakespeare and Greek Mythology, so you should also read those. 

P’s Books

  1. Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling-Like, E, these books have been a huge part of my childhood. I read them growing up and I was literally the same age as Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they battled dementors and learned magic. I’ve learned so much from the series and the books have contributed so much to my love for reading. 
  2. Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom-This book is absolutely wonderful. I read it and it really changed my view on what I’m doing with my life and about what’s important. If you go back to our first blog post you’ll see that this is one reason we started the blog. After this book I quickly became a Tuesday person and E and I have lunch every Tuesday to celebrate Morrie and his view on life. In addition, if I’m being real with you guys, I am ADDICTED to self-help books, not that I’m like, messed up or anything, it’s just that I have this weird desire to improve like every facet of my life and with self-help books I can read all about other peoples’ journeys and tailor their tips and advice to my own life. For reals, once you go self-help, you never go back. Other self-help books I enjoy are The Happiness Project, How to be a Hepburn in a World Full of Hiltons, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, etc. The list goes on forever.
     
  3. The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen-I love this book and I do not care whether you judge me. Don’t get me wrong guys, I love me some Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. I like Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain and I read Homer and Shakespeare and I think classics are great books (sometimes), but there is just something about cheesy romance novels and young adult fiction that I cannot resist. I remember reading the Hunger Games almost two years ago and loving it! I just love fairytales and teen fiction and things about high school and magic and worlds that only exist in your imagination. Percy Jackson and Penndragon used to be some of my FAVORITE books. Yea, sometimes the plots are shallow and the characters are underdeveloped, but the idea behind the story always shines through. Certain ideas, certain quotes, they always stick with me from these kinds of books. It’s comforting for good to triumph over evil, and it’s fun to read books from the old days and have them take you back to your childhood. I don’t think I will ever outgrow children’s books or young adult books. 
  4. Blindness by Jose Saragamo-This book won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I can absolutely see why. The story was horrifying, yet extremely touching and a very wide array of human emotion is depicted throughout the book. It’s a hard book to describe and really just one you’ll have to read for yourself.
  5. The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner-I really love reading science-y books, I guess because I’m a math and science nerd. This one is one of my favorites. I really like reading about the brain and about the body and why we do what we do. I find various diseases and ailments very intriguing and I enjoyed the Science of Fear a lot because it truly broke down what fear is and why humans feel it. it makes me approach my fear in a very different way. I have tons of other favorite science-y books (Michio Kaku anyone?) and I would definitely say this is one of my favorite genres.

CRAP. I just realized that I didn’t even include The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and that’s one of my favorite books. EFF. Maybe I’ll write a post called Why I Love The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Truthfully, this process of choosing five of my favorite books was absolutely grueling because there are so so so so so many wonderful books out there.

Anyway. Lots of Love and Happy Reading!

-E&P